Where does one begin or end, when it comes to writing an article on Tibet? It’s an attempt to make an account of my dream journey, until this moment of reality. With such initial dilemmas unfolds a story, told countless times, in diverse languages but thi
by TSERING CHODEN
I’m not a scholar, I ain’t no political analyst and although the panoramic view of mother earth leaves me hypnotized, I ain’t a geologist either. In all of that I’m not, I’m a little bit of a traveler. I feel the need to run away from everyday life to a dream destination and while I sort things out in my head I get to visit a new place, new people, new ideas, new experiences, new perceptions thus adding a new to the old me.
So this journey, primarily does sound like one that reads ‘soul searching’. I was going to Tibet, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t feel inspired enough to indulge in it. Before I set off to the ‘third pole’ I considered myself a cynical Buddhist and so I needed to believe in myself and revive the flame of faith that was gradually losing its glow. When morals are low, take lessons from the combination of two great teachers – your parents. Forming a trinity of sorts we walked the distance– my father, my mother and I.
Whether a tourist or a pilgrim, an itinerary is what it stands for – record of travel, which always proves to be handy. Our pilgrimage would take us to Lhasa, foremost, where we set base and then travel to places nearby like Tsethang and Nethang and other parts of Lhokha (south). After visiting the prominent monasteries touching those areas we would then travel to Kham (east), and make our way to regions like Gyalthang, Chating, Dopa, Lithang, Datsedo (all Tibetan names) onto our last stop Chengdu. Then we’re airborne to Lhasa and back home.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Whichever part of the world you might go to crossing the border usually spurts difficulties. After the completion of scrutiny by the Nepali Army in Kodari we crossed the ‘Friendship Bridge’ and walked on Chinese soil. It didn’t feel any different from what I walked on ten minutes earlier. A pick-up truck was to take us to Khasa bazaar, as it’s popularly called, where the Chinese check-post stands. I hurriedly clambered onto the truck. A luggage count is required everytime a transaction from one vehicle to the other takes place. When you’re the pilgrim you’re also at a disadvantage as far as the concept of ‘traveling light’ in concerned. So there’s sacks of rice (for the offering bowls), packets of dalda (to light butter lamps), boxes of incense (Kathmandu produces some of the finest fragrances), bags of khadas (white ceremonial scarves) to add to winter clothing for three (preparing ourselves for the harsh Tibetan plateau). There’s also a strong belief that requirements for the altar, if brought with the pilgrims (especially from a sacred country like Nepal) will double the merit for oneself as well as all sentient beings and result in good karma. Since I was given the responsibility, due to my highly acquired mathematical skills, and knowing what was at stake, I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad.
In anticipation of reaching Khasa (or Daam, as it is called in Tibetan) before the Chinese decide to call it a day, we traveled in the most uncomfortable of conditions. It was the craziest ride ever, being tossed to and fro, thrown up and then landing with thuds on your bottom, along winding roads and precarious curves. If that wasn’t bad enough our driver, a reckless Amdo, tells us that the headlights weren’t working. The brilliance of my brains, even after such a tiring day knew no bounds, and so I shone the torch to show the way, and it worked! That goes to say, without a doubt, that torches should head the priority list of your travel essentials.
We made it but not early enough. The Chinese check-post had already shut down and that meant no movement of vehicles till dawn the next day. But that wasn’t a matter of concern really, not when you’re in a place like Tanga and hotel accomodations are at its minimum. Since it’s the last stop before Khasa and travelers usually prefer to spend the night (if need be) at the latter. With no place to stay (after inquiring) the truck had to be our last resort and I quite enjoyed the idea of roughing it out.
We moved early the next day, the sooner we entered mainland China the sooner we could get to Lhasa and the sooner our anticipations will be put to rest. As our blue pick-up truck neared the Chinese check-post, the first object that caught my eye was the red Communist flag fluttering in the October wind. At first sight it was somehow intimidating, powerful, robust. My thoughts were then distracted by a chain of cargo buses waiting to cross the border, most of them stacked with dalda. Fearing another long wait we decided to leave on foot; there is never a dearth of burden bearers. I was quite impressed with the Chinese security facilities causing no inconvenience to the traveler. Our luggage rolled in and out of an X-ray machine with a manual check only if suspicions arose. But I should have known that that wouldn’t be the end of it. After a passport-to-face analysis we were officially in China but not welcomed yet. There was one more channel we had to pass, and as it came to my notice, this specialized in taking special interest in the belongings of the youth. My parents were asked to move aside while I was ushered into a room accompanied by two army personnel, themselves in their mid 20s. They turned my bag upside down, my rucksack inside out, along with a barrage of questions. Where am I working? What is my profession? What are my reasons of visiting Tibet? Any photographs? Am I married? The questions come in quick succession so you really don’t know when you finish answering one and begin on the next. My books got repeated flips (Any photographs? came again), my CDs were scrutinized, they even took a listen to the tape in my Dictaphone, inquired if my camera was loaded, rummaged through my visiting cards, stared at my work ID cards, all this while taking quick glances at me and brief conversations with their comrades. Did their behaviour make me nervous? Yes it did.
Not having found anything worthy of suspicion they told me I could go. I gladly left the room and joined my parents. They were a little nervous too but it’s China we’re dealing with, surely not a walk in the park. We quickly forgot that incident and hurried towards the Naelekhang (hotel for visitors). We could still arrange for vehicles to take us to Lhasa. It just felt so urgent to visit the Jhokhang, the Potala and seek blessings in the three monasteries of old – Gaden, Sera, Drepung.
The money exchange hub happens to be Khasa Bazaar, for obvious reasons. Men and women, both young and old, engage in the transaction of currency. You don’t have to have a good eye, nor do your senses have to be on the alert because they are everywhere and they are carrying bulky backpacks, waist-bags and they usually approach you before you get to them. With Rupees converted to Yuan we went on the lookout for transport. We found out getting to Lhasa was fairly easy.
Not much sleep to lose over that but what I’m now going to tell you next might be very disturbing if not taken care of from the beginning. One is required to carry an ‘Alien Travel Permit’ that allows you to travel via road into mainland China and Lhasa. The disturbing factor is that you will not be voluntarily informed about this at the check-post and nowhere else will you find an information center. So you might not be aware of this certain ‘Alien Travel Permit’ and the sheer importance of it, not until you reach the first check-point after having left Khasa Bazaar. When you do find out you will be asked to go right back and issue the permit. If this occurs after 5 o’ clock too bad and to add to that if it’s a Friday then it could be your worst nightmare because government offices (like it is everywhere) are closed for the weekend. This is not the end of your predicament either as it’s an office, which is very difficult to locate. After continuous inquiries you will realize, in frustration, that with a clear, large signboard it’s not all that difficult to locate this dilapidated, precariously staircased building on the roadside.
For a nominal fee you are issued the permit or face a fine of 500 Yuan (almost Rs. 5000) every day till the day you plan to leave the country! So the permit is of high importance, what with check-points before every village or town but with the papers intact your journey will not be disrupted.
Fortunately our driver informed us in due time. Then began our true journey into Tibet, that of admiring the breathtaking beauty around us. If Mustang is enchanting Tibet is magical. You get the taste of true Tibet as you near Ngalam, ride on the notorious Ngalam pass, onto Tingri, Lhatse, Shigatse after which we took a detour to Sakya village to visit the Sakya monastery. The change in vegetation is almost dramatic – a rich green (from Nepal all the way to Khasa Bazaar) to a various shade of pale green to brown to barren. Our Pajero sped with the speed of lightning leaving behind a trail of dust. The one before you could blind the windshields in thick clouds. But why should the dust bother you when you’re being overwhelmed by the vastness of the spotless blue sky, the rolling hills spread in front of you and further away, the mountains increasing in height, all this while we rush through vast expanses.
We were soon approaching Ngalam (wherein lies the first check-point after entering Tibet), which holds significance post-war. It was here that the kha tcha ras (Newari Tibetans) began an 8-day walk to the Nepali border. This was after the subjugation of Tibet, in 1959, when Newari traders, their spouses and children were given the choice of living under Chinese occupation or going back to Nepal. The routine check, from passport-to-face, brief introductions, purpose of visit, these are usually some of the questions you’d be confronted with. From Ngalam, if all goes well we would reach Lhasa a little earlier than nightfall and that was the plan. But before that is the Ngalam Pass, which is considered to be quite notorious, as it stands at an altitude of almost 4900 feet. Cross the pass as soon as possible, don’t think of getting out of the car, munch on something – just some of the comments we received and sure enough my mother complains of a splitting headache. This medicine man had nothing to offer apart from paracetamol, which worked, so that was a relief. The only drawback was a loss of time. We reached Tingri, a town with a population of probably a few hundreds. The inn (the only one), our shelter for the night, lay adjacent to a restaurant with its blaring speakers placed outside, the din was unbearable. Beware of Chinese kungfu movies on cheap stereos, it’s painful.
After tucking my mother into bed we moved to the restaurant owned by our innkeeper. His two red cheeked daughters, very hospitable, served a roomful of travelers, drivers and locals. We got a much-required rest after almost 7 hours of continuous driving. The wind outside was fierce and we were huddled in the restaurant warmed with yak dung. Beside me were a couple of tourists. One cyber savvy was logged on via satellite; sophisticated lifestyle on the roof of the world!
We took off early next morning and stopped in Lhatse for lunch. Getting your choice off the menu is painstaking. The disadvantage of not speaking a word of Chinese can actually leave you with no choices. So the ordeal of hand gestures and body language becomes a routine but that won’t guarantee you the right order. I’m not fussy so it didn’t pose too much of a problem.
By now it was a restless effort to reach Lhasa, more so for our driver who was flying through villages in an attempt to reach quickly. He was in such a hurry that he objected to the idea of stopping in Shigatse to visit Tashi Lhumpu, the monastery wherein lies the Panchen Lama lineage. But destiny had other plans and so halfway up to Lhasa and far away from Shigatse, we had to make another disappointed stop over at Tagdo (appeared to be smaller than Tingri). By now it was just a question of having a roof over our heads and so the inn in Tagdo served its purpose. As I lay on the hard bed, I couldn’t contain the excitement of reaching Lhasa the next day. Somewhere in the middle of my anxieties I fell fast asleep.
LHASA, THE LAND OF THE GODS
You will notice a miraculous transformation as you near Lhasa. It’s greener, excellent roads with the Tsangpo River flowing alongside. On the way you will cross the temple of the Goddess Tara and the Nethang Lha (the latter meaning God; it’s a large engraving of the Buddha on the side of a cliff). My heart skipped a beat when I spotted the overhead gate that read, ‘Welcome to Lhasa’. We had finally made it.
Lhasa is far more magical than I’d imagined. Spotting the Potala Palace (built in the 7th century by the 5th Dalai Lama), at a distance was enthralling. There it stood, one of the most prominent landmarks. An identity that defines Tibet lay in front of my eyes, growing larger as I drew nearer. An instant humbling effect took place. Standing in front of Potala Palace was like standing in front of the pearly gates of heaven. Picture perfect and larger than life; you seriously have to pinch yourself and wonder if you’ll wake up in bed.
Lhasa is a bustling metropolitan, much to my dismay. With the backdrop of Potala Palace sprawling in the horizon, standing majestic, holding the pride of ancient Tibet, there are the horribly tiled buildings that come in the most shocking of colours, streamer decorated departmental stores, rows of salons with tinted glasses, restaurants with big, red lanterns. The city’s kaleidoscope of colours is what you will notice as you enter ‘modern’ Lhasa; an eyesore at times. And in a crowd of 10 Chinese you will probably spot one Tibetan. Or who knows, there could be more, cultures have been so disintegrated. At first glance it is difficult to separate a Chinese from an ethnic Tibetan. I was disappointed. Where were the natives of this great land of snow? It depends on individual perception though, for what I consider to be the degradation of society for others might be development and so-called modernization.
THE TIMES SQUARE OF TIBET
In Lhasa, the Barkhor (also known as the Times Square of Tibet) is where you will find them. My heart melted as I caught sight of old Tibetan women shuffling around stupas with prayer wheels in one hand, prayer beads in the other and the most adorable pet following them. Tied to the back of their chubas (tibetan dress) you will find a leash. If you follow the leash down you should spot a little Tibetan apso trotting haughtily behind their owner. It’s the cutest thing I’ve laid my eyes on.
After enjoying a hot shower at a salon (for 5 yuan) we did what all pilgrims choose to do – visit the Jhokhang, the central temple in the heart of the city, built by the 7th century king Songsten Gompo, who adopted Buddhism. The 12-year-old Shakyamuni, the main deity in the Jhokhang happens to be a gift from the Chinese princess Wen Cheng, one of Songsten Gompo’s two wives. The second Queen is a Newari princess and so you will notice that the wood carvings on doors leading to smaller deity rooms have a characteristic that is very Nepali. There’s a myth that the Gods helped build the temple, that when the labourers went to sleep the Gods got to work.
The first lesson you learn while visiting Jhokhang is that of patience or else how would you explain the silent queue of pilgrims waiting to enter the temple. Most of them have already waited for the past four hours. They arrive in the wee hours of the morning and don’t leave without offering their prayers and contribution to the monastery. The crowd usually becomes so unmanageable there are frequent cases of theft. For the weak and tempted, monasteries throughout the spectacular land of Tibet would serve as treasure abodes, what with prayer lamps, statues composed in gold and silver, decorated with the most precious of gems and money (offerings) overflowing from every corner.
Finally we reached closer to the main shrine. We quickly stepped out and prostrated three times in front of the Shakyamuni. He glows in the simplicity of how he led his life. There he sat with a magnificently calm expression on his face. It was a dream come true.
THE INNER CIRCUIT
For a wonderful time in Lhasa, spend your day in the Barkhor street. At first I found it stinky, noisy and rather distracting – the vendors, the string of stores, the crowd, the loud blaring music (Hindi commercial music has reached the roof of the world) but after a few days the feeling was different. The place tends to grow on you and so a day didn’t go by when I didn’t visit the Barkhor, circumambulate, be a participant in the Barkhor parade. I drank sweet tea (very popular) at a dingy tea stall, gradually making my way to the front of the Jhokhang where I sat on a bench for hours on end simply watching the world go by. It’s wonderful all you can do without actually doing anything. Sometimes I would take part by browsing for precious stones like jhuru (corals), yu (turqoise), zui (jade), zee, all an integral part of the Tibetans being sold in the rows of shops that form a circle around the Jhokhang. I would otherwise be found gawking at the women, exotic looking as they are, their style is definitively authenticated with their long hair done in braids topped with an enormous turquoise or amber. Ravishing indeed. The men (usually Khampas, “cowboys of the East”) have a distinct style of their own. Not everybody sports long, plaited hair decorated with red tassles and large ring-like silver circumferences bedecked by a turqoise. They are all there in the Barkhor – the devotees, the beggars, the street kids, the dogs, the young and the old, the police, the businessmen, the curious.
The highest point of my visit to Tibet would be Lhasa. My lessons in life unfolded here, I just had to be sensitive enough to grab the signs posted all over. Its diversity gave me ample room for thought and also the broader picture; what’s happening in Lhasa today has great influence over places across the plateau. The ‘progress’ might not be as rapid but it’s evident.
As far as the future of Tibet goes, it’s largely divided into two different communities. There’s a section that prefer to watch Chinese, eat Chinese, dress Chinese, sing Chinese, look Chinese, be Chinese. They visit clubs (aplenty around the Potala), engage in superficial talk (a universal disease), eat in fancy restaurants that serve creepy crawly ‘fresh’ aquatic creatures, play majong (a popular form of gambling), might be jobless but carry a cell phone for ‘impression’ while they enjoy a few beers at a karaoke bar and spend quality time smoking and playing computer games in cyber cafes. And then there are the free spirited who are governed only by nature and live only by their faith. They come in droves from all corners of Tibet every year during summer to offer themselves to their faith. They smell, are unkempt, illiterate, brash, temperamental, ill mannered but pure. They will go to any lengths, prostrate to the capital even in harsh conditions, twirling giant prayer wheels, murmuring mantras – acquiring good karma for sentient beings like you and me. But they are probably not aware of that as most of it comes out of blind faith. Whereas it’s different for me. I have the advantage of being educated for which I remain indebted to my parents. I can choose to choose something from the other, I can have a critical spirit without the fear of being questioned. So similarly, If I want I can also adopt a few philosophies into my day-to-day life without shaving my head or wearing robes. I can open my mind to a better learning of my religion. One regret is not being able to witness a sky burial while I was in Tibet as the practice is still highly prevalent. Death is, after all, the ultimate teacher. Above and beyond that I have access to freedom. As I see it, the ethnic Tibetans are slowly disappearing. A fast train is soon approaching. The tracks begin in Beijing and end in Lhasa; the consequences of which will alter the face of Tibet, forever.